On BBC's Question Time on February 7, the panel was asked about the recent debate about actor Liam Neeson's alleged racism. The response given by model and author Eunice Olumide included a brilliant summary of the history and legacies of colonial slavery. Eunice spoke eloquently of "the elephant in the room" – the transatlantic slave-trade and colonialism – "which no-one ever wants to talk about, despite the fact that it is one of the most significant and horrifying points of history, probably in the entire existence of human beings." Find the programme here on iPlayer – Eunice's response starts at around 39 minutes.
The shameful treatment of the 'Windrush Generation' that has come to light in recent weeks has been commented on in this article entitled 'Prejudice and Injustice' by MJR trustee Dr Clifford Hill. In it he comments: "Our mistreatment of people from the Caribbean islands goes back at least 200 years to the days of slavery under British colonial rule. This legacy of slavery has never been finally expunged from our social attitudes and culture." Read the full article here.
In this hard-hitting blog for the William Temple Foundation, Greg Smith considers white, male privilege and the role of the Church in a world still beset by racial inequality. Despite some progress in the past forty years Smith laments that still "so little has been achieved in the struggle against oppression and the legacy of colonialism and slavery", and that being white, male, middle-class and university educated (as he readily admits he himself is) still confers significant social and economic privilege over all others.
"Despite all the enquiries and reports, and equality and diversity policies, institutional racism remains in place and life chances in education, employment, income, the criminal justice system, health and housing are significantly higher for white middle and upper class people living in the south of England than for any of the minority ethnic communities. Violent hate crimes are frequent and tend to peak when political events give permission for racist thuggery, verbal and online abuse goes on unchecked and subtle forms of racism expressed in a look, body language or unfavourable customer service are an everyday experience."
As for the Church, again while there is much work and progress to be commended, still for the most part there is white male domination, particularly of leadership, and unwillingness to address issues of legacy. “Conversations about colonial history in white-led evangelical circles often begin and end with a self congratulatory, virtue signalling narrative around Wilberforce and the abolitionists, plus a mention of the great Christian leadership of Martin Luther King and Desmond Tutu.” Read the full blog here.
This article by Afua Hirsch appeared in the Guardian as a response to the recent violence in Charlottesville. In it she asks important questions about statues in the UK and who gets remembered from history and why. William Wilberforce is known for his abolition work, (though not the many black activist and writers who also campaigned). However, he was vigorously opposed by Nelson, the naval hero, who used "his position of huge influence to perpetuate the tyranny, serial rape and exploitation organised by West Indian planters, some of whom he counted among his closest friends." Should his statue be next on the list for toppling?
Afua comments: "We have 'moved on' from this era no more than the US has from its slavery and segregationist past. The difference is that America is now in the midst of frenzied debate on what to do about it, whereas Britain – in our inertia, arrogance and intellectual laziness – is not." Read the full article here.
MJR trustee Joe Aldred has written a response to the recent white supremacist rally in Charlottesville, USA. In it he encourages Christians to "not opt only for the easy answers of prayer, protest and denunciation" but to also make a stand for truth. "We can stand against lies which say one race is superior to another. We can condemn the selfish ambition and the fake news we see. But most of all we can preach the truth of the gospel. Once a person has accepted Jesus as their Lord, there will be no room for racism or hatred in their lives." Read the full article here.
Some strong words in this Huffington Post article, but worth a read. Racism, and the legacy of slavery, affects all of us. Which means we all need to seek to understand how other people are feeling, and be brave enough to ask ourselves: 'Could I be wrong about this?' This is harder if you don't perceive there is a problem. As the writer says: 'White people are in a position of power in this country because of racism. The question is: Are they brave enough to use that power to speak against the system that gave it to them?' Read the article here...
This article and quiz is from the US context, but most of the questions could be applied to our society in the UK. It's point is to show that "anti-Blackness is deeply rooted in American culture, extending far beyond the most egregious examples of racist aggression. Racism manifests in laws, in advertisements, in economic policy, in media portrayals, in criminal justice, and in general society. We have all been steeped in it, and that you as a person have been unaffected by it is highly unlikely."
The legacy of slavery is an issue that needs to be recognised and tackled by our whole society – the descendants of those who benefitted, and continue to do so, as well as those who suffered, and continue to do so. Are we prepared to admit that racism is not sustained by hate groups? It is sustained by "everyday, good-hearted people who do not realize how deep anti-Black biases can be planted in our minds and our culture." These questions may help us to reflect more deeply.
This article in Premier Christianity magazine explores how the majority of UK churches are split on racial lines and asks: "Can we re-unite a segregated Church?" While there are a few notable exceptions, today's situation of most churches and Christian Festivals being mono- rather than multi-cultural is a legacy of racist attitudes going back 70 years.
"The tragedy of the Church’s racial divide is that much of it could have been avoided were it not for the racist attitudes that often prevailed in Britain and its churches in the mid-20th century. The first Windrush generation of Caribbean immigrants to the UK in the late 40s and 50s brought their Christian faith with them. But they failed to find a welcome in British churches, frequently being told that they were not welcome to attend. So, they began their own churches."
How much does the Church simply reflect wider society and how much does it demonstrate another, better way of relating to each other? If Martin Luther King's words “It is appalling that the most segregated hour of Christian America is eleven o’clock on Sunday morning” apply here too, it would seem that there is work to be done on justice and reconciliation among the people of God. Read the full article here.
An interesting article in today's Independent by Jame Moore is titled: "I used to love ‘Swing Low, Sweet Chariot’ – until I found out what it meant". With rugby's Six Nations tournament currently being played, this song will be sung by many, but the New York Times has suggested that "it might actually be grossly offensive to turn a spiritual from the slave-owning era in America into something as trivial as a sporting anthem." It consulted a number of academics about the use of the song and one commented that: "a group of people seemed to be free-associating with imagery largely disconnected from its history." Considering the lyrics are about the release of death for a slave who has been cruelly mis-treated, Moore reflects on a recent trip to the American South: "The ugly legacy of slavery was everywhere. Some of what we saw in museums about how it operated was truly horrifying. Set against that, the use of the song in a sporting context? Well it makes me shudder, anyway."
Read the full article here.
A response to Ijeoma Oluo's article "White People: I Don’t Want You To Understand Me Better, I Want You To Understand Yourselves." by MJR's Nigel Pocock
This article seems to be an appeal to white Americans who have grown up in the southern US states to develop a self-understanding of their ‘interpretational reflexes’ of which they are blissfully unaware. While the author lists the pain which she has suffered as a Black woman writer, and this must, consciously or otherwise, be an attempt to evoke ‘empathy’ (imaginatively living in another’s shoes), it is not what she consciously appeals for. She clearly wants a level playing field, and sees the unconscious dominant white southern ideology as being the problem. She wants white southerners to come out of denial, and to face this ideology of white dominance.
Psychologists like Yale Professor of Psychology Paul Bloom (2016) agree with our author. His argument (not accepted by all) is that empathy is usually directed not towards another ‘out-group’ but towards an in-group or individual with whom we share as much in common as possible. For this reason, empathy can be highly dangerous. It can lead to gross over-reaction over the death of (say) one person, with a completely disproportionate response, even leading to mass killings and violence. Research shows that greater empathy is correlated to greater harshness of punishment towards people seen as threats (this of course cuts both ways, black vs. white, white vs. black, and feeds the process known as ‘co-radicalisation’). The dominant ideology of the plantocratic élite was justified through ‘pluralistic ignorance’, a psychological mechanism where people may have doubts, but dare not share these doubts, lest they undermine the status quo; they therefore reinforce the dominant ideology in language and actions, even while festering doubts may be there. This dominant ideology maintained the flow of capital, expropriation of land, the planting of cotton, and the growth of southern slavery, all in lockstep between the American South and the Liverpool and Lancashire cotton mills, with UK government support (anyone not convinced of this, should read Sven Beckert’s great work, Empire of Cotton: A New History of Global Capitalism, which was recommended by Jim Walvin).
How can people address the huge suffering that this ‘lockstep’ caused, both to the Southern slaves, and the Lancashire mill workers? Bloom says that no-one can live with empathy, without burnout, even if this empathy is pro-social as regards an out-group. He recommends a rational compassion. Compassion is the projection outwards of loving thoughts (not inwards towards another’s suffering, which is empathy). Research studies shows that compassion leads to greater motivation to help, while empathy brings sadness and pain. Bloom acknowledges that (say) empathy drove and awakened the antislavery campaign, for example the Brooks motif), but that compassion is (psychosocially, for example Thomas Winterbottom’s medical work in Sierra Leone) a better way . . . Would this surprise our author? Probably not, for it seems that this is what she has in view.
What is the significance of this, for MJR, if Bloom is right? Films like ‘Twelve Years a Slave’, and the new version of ‘Roots’ might unavoidably focus too much on the violence and therefore the empathy aspect, rather than compassion. This suggests the need for a more subtle approach, rather than hitting people with the most painful images conceivable. How can love, especially agapē love, be encouraged? The New Testament has four words for ‘love’: agapē, eros, storgē, and philein, with the latter two being concerned with the in-group, eros with sexuality, and agapē with obedience to God, not empathy, per se. We are called to love others, even people very different, even enemies, because that was modelled by Jesus, and this is what God wants! ‘Compassion’, in this use, seems to be pretty much synonymous with agapē type love.
(Read Ijeoma Olou's article here.)
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